Absolutism is a word that never existed until the Eighteenth Century when it became popular both theologically and politically. In England, the term was common in early Eighteenth Century due to deep-rooted theology. However, politically, this word became known after the French Revolution whereby it spread all over Europe especially after return of downright monarchy in 1823.
“Various English, French and German encyclopedias evidence the rapid spread of the political neologism “absolutism” spread quickly since the middle of the 1820s, and it was well established in Europe’s political semantic by 1830. Like other coinages on “ism” the catchword “absolutism” was not precisely defined, and various political schools used it as a polemic slogan” (Bonney 98).
Progressives found this word a common place for they saw an inevitable fight as many political systems faced the reality of constitutionalism as opposed to Stalinism. In progressives’ point of view, despotism was not a subject of an individual form of government. The French Revolution attested that not only was political freedom imperiled by monarchial despotism, but also by democratic despotism.
Consequently, liberals started criticizing democratic absolutism whilst pushing for monarchial despotism. This conception however did not go down well with many people especially Germans, most of them being right wing supporters of Restoration. “Absolutism was represented here as a consequence of the Enlightenment’s replacement of Christianity as the commonly agreed source of rights by the concept of enlightened natural law” (Vierhaus 25).
According to these right wing adherents, French Revolution had nothing to do with abolishment of despotism. This revolution came from differing opinions between citizens and monarchs concerning the sovereignty of absolutism.
From a Christianity perspective, anti-constitutionalism was not an outright despotism as progressives tried to put it. Moreover, according to Christianity, Restoration did not mean reinstitution of monarchial absolutism; rather the Restoration exposed the frailties of this form of governance.
However, the liberals agreed at one point with Christianity that priori right emanated from natural law. “However, liberals tried to surmount absolutism with a developmental concept of constitutionalism, whereas the Christian-Romantics of the Restoration clung to a backwards-oriented concept of utopia rooted in revived Christianity and a monarchy of estates founded on medieval social concepts” (Richter 26).
Therefore, there was no a distinct definition of absolutism. Actually, many people could not draw any semantic line between “despotism” and “absolutism.”
Nevertheless, as this standoff continued, pauperism was on the rise and a section of working class movements led to reconsideration of this stand off.
Saint-Simpson moved to incorporate “social aspect’ to this debate which did not consider the constitutional aspect of it. In the wake of these events, liberals reconstituted their stand and asserted that these working class movements were a potential source of a new frontier of absolutism. This led Charles de Remusat to “perceive a double threat to liberalism in theological or industrial absolutism” (Vierhaus 65).
Before things could settle down, radicals pushed for a universal voting system something that the Progressives in St. Pauls Church protested vehemently. These progressives argued that such a move had annihilated freedom in France giving way to Napoleon’s absolutism.
However, by 1840s, the debate on absolutism took another twist and it was no longer about constitutionalism or monarchy. “By 1848, a consensus on constitutionalism existed above most important political controversies, and discussion shifted to the method for institutionalizing constitutionalism.
The general acceptance of constitutionalism as a political paradigm meant an end to liberals’ monopoly in interpreting the meaning of constitutionalism; marking the beginning of new discourse on constitutional issues” (Vierhaus 73). Definitions of ‘despotism’ and ‘absolutism’ were now subject to reflection depending on where someone was located, either in France or in Germany.
“In 1868, Prevost-Paradol in La France nouvelle attacked Napoleon III’s plebiscitary Bonapartism as ‘democratic despotism,’ and in Prussia liberal Constitutionalists denounced conservative constitutionalism as absolutism. In 1858 liberal L.K. von Aegidi in the Preussische Jahrbucher censured the form of conservatism theoretically espoused by F.J. Stahl that sanctioned ‘princely absolutism under constitutional forms’” (Vierhaus 74).
By 1830, the word ‘absolutism’ had become historical in Germany; however, in other places in Europe like France and England, this was a dialogistic term in political discourse. The differences in meaning of this word can be attributed to different philosophical systems in different parts of Europe. For instance, “German Idealism of Schelling, Hegel, Krause was regarded as the central philosophical problem the question of the appearance in history of the absolute; that is God” (Vierhaus 77).
To Germans, most of them having bought Hegel’s interpretation of absolutism, the historical monarchial system was just but a representation of contemporary state. “After the 1848 revolution national liberals and the Prussian school of historians popularized throughout Germany the Hegelian School’s interpretation of historical absolutism” (Blankner Para. 7).
By mid Seventeenth Century, royal absolutism predominated in England whereby, James I and Charles I considered parliament decisions not. However, there was so much pressure from the parliament and it could not cede all government powers to a single individual.
Parliament received much backing from rich merchants and landowners and this is probably what kept these kings from enforcing total despotism in England. However, “In 1642, differences between Charles I and Parliament sparked England’s civil war, which was caused partly by royal stubbornness to share control of the country and partly by Parliament’s refusal to give up their power in government” (Jones Para. 2).
This served as an awakening call to the Parliament and it solidified its quest to eliminate absolutism or at least trim chances of single government. The Parliament was on watch such that by the time Charles II came to power, he did not think of absolutism.
As aforementioned, French Revolution brought chaos in the country, which saw the torture of many middle and low class citizens. This revolution was against monarchial absolutism. Consequently, many citizens could not support any other form of rebellion and this gave monarchial absolutism chance to thrive. This was the opposite of the case in England.
Absolutism is a word that never existed before the Eighteenth Century. However, the word came to be in different parts of Europe depending on location. By early Eighteenth century, absolutism was politically accepted in Germany while in England this word existed only in theological circles. Actually, total absolutism never came to be in England because of the Parliamentary form of government.
Even though Charles I tried to impose it leading to the civil war, he never succeeded. In France, things were different. Incidences that culminated to the failed French Revolution left many people scared of protesting against monarchial system. Actually, most French citizens supported monarchial absolutism to gain protection. Differences in this word came from different political systems in different parts of Europe.
Blankner, Reinhard. “Absolutism.” 2004. Web. 12 Mar. 2010.
Bonney, Richard “Absolutism: What’s in a Name?” French History I, 1987.
Jones, Taylor. “Absolutism in the Seventeenth Century.” 1990. Web. 12 Mar. 2010.
Richter, Melvin, “Absolutism.” Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Miller, David. Ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987.
Vierhaus, Rudolf. “Absolutism.” Marxism, Communism, and Western Society. New York: Herder & Herder, 1972.